"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A compare and contrast of two short story collections

I recently returned from a trip. I like to carry short story collections with me when I travel figuring that I can easily consume a story or two on a flight, train trip, or at the end of an exhaustive day. For this trip I selected Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders and Too Much Happiness: Stories by Alice Munro. I selected these books for the same reason: the authors were both regarded as excellent short story writers and both had received awards for doing so. 

Tenth of December was a National Book Award finalist in 2013, won The Story Prize that same year, and The Writer's Prize in 2014. In addition, George Saunders wrote an excellent book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, analyzing the art of the short story. Reading that book felt like taking a class by a master himself.

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, cited as a "master of the modern short story." She also won the Booker International Prize in 2009 for her overall contribution to fiction on the world stage. Many say she revolutionized the architecture of the short story, especially in the tendency to move backward and forward in time. She could "accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages." Alice Munro just died in past May 2024 and I wanted to read something by her as a sort of memorial to this genius of the form. I also had a used copy of Too Much Happiness on my book shelf. It has been hanging out there for many years. If I finished it on the trip I would have no trouble leaving it behind.

Unfortunately for me and for Tenth of December, I started the Saunders book first when I was in the throws of rather surprisingly bad jet lag and cold symptoms. Every evening as I was settling down to bed I'd crack open the book but could only muster a page or two of the story before my desire for sleep overwhelmed my desire to read. Saunders stories were longer than I expected and it would sometimes take me days to finish just one story. Because of this I found that I would lose the thread of the story, forget characters, or just didn't "like" many of them. I was also surprised by the number of stories that I would consider Sci-Fi or futuristic, though one of these stories is the clearest of all the stories in my memory. "Escape from Spiderland" is about a man, Jeff, who is convicted of a crime and sent to an experimental prison where he becomes a guinea pig for the development of pharmaceuticals. The ending is chilling. I found "The Semplica Girl Dairies" too long and frankly hard to follow. It took me days to read and I kept forgetting what all the abbreviations meant. When I read the summary of this story in Wikipedia, I realized I never actually figured out what was going on at all. I left this collection of stories in the Munich airport, with the story which gave its name to the book half unread. I probably should have stopped earlier. I hope someone picked it up and enjoyed and appreciated it more than I did.

That left me with Too Much Happiness for my trip home. With my jet lag and cold symptoms under control, I could better focus on my reading and immediately found Munro's writing style easy to understand and enjoyable. I no longer had to guess at the plot or wonder about the setting. In fact, I could picture the settings for almost all the stories. My favorite stories in the collection were both quirky with surprising endings. "Free Radicals" focuses on Nina an elderly woman whose husband has recently died and she is confronted by a home intruder. "Child's Play" focuses on two young girls who meet at camp and their lives are forever intertwined by events from that summer.

Clearly I liked the Munro collection better than the Saunders' one. But, I should say, Saunders' novel Lincoln in the Bardo is a masterpiece, and so is his aforementioned, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I like his writing I just didn't care for this collection of stories by him. Even though Munro stopped writing in 2013, I would still recommend you try one of her collections if you want to read some excellent short stories.

2024 Twenty Books of Summer Challenge

5 / 20 books. 25% done!



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